Sweet dreams are made of this

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 April, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 April, 2001, 12:00am

WHAT DOES THE Pope sleep on? Sounds like the start of a bad, and potentially blasphemous joke, but for home furnishing aficionados the world over, that punchline is Frette.

Alongside Madonna, Bill Gates and the Italian, French and Spanish royal families, John Paul II likes nothing better than to bed down on Frette's legendary linen. It is employed in the world's top hotels including The Ritz in Paris and The Savoy in London, on board the Orient Express and on luxury liners including the Titanic, before its watery demise.

When Hollywood's hottest duo du jour Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones, both Frette fans, were married last November at the Plaza Hotel in New York they insisted baby Dillon's crib be made up in Frette sheets.

'They called our office in New York and said that the sheets weren't adequate for the young Douglas,' regales Gianluigi Facchini, Frette's Milan-based CEO. 'Within two hours of the request, we had delivered sheets up to the suite.'

For decades, Frette has been the exclusive preserve of the monied classes and those in the know, but now the 140-year-old Italian purveyor of what many cite as the world's most luxurious linen, is doing a 'Burberry'. Just as the historic English brand brought in Rose Marie Bravo, the American buyer for Saks Fifth Avenue and Macy's, to rejuvenate the fusty raincoat brand, Frette has called in Cristina Azario, the former chief fabric designer for Donna Karan, to air its linen. 'Her input has been really strong,' says Facchini. 'She has a great eye and has made the collection more fashionable and feminine.'

Although the firm concluded its image needed a revamp, its reputation has never been a problem. Frette is renowned for intricate jacquard designs printed using a trademark 'iandanthren' process that produces solid colours which do not easily fade.

Only the best-quality materials are incorporated, among them baby alpaca, sheared mink, cashmere, silk and satin. Cotton is grown exclusively for the company in Egypt where the best-quality cotton with the longest fibres is grown. Its jacquards have a thread count of 550 (the number of threads per square inch), while plain styles have a count of 300. (Run-of-the-mill sheets found in department stores have a count of between 150 and 200.)

Naturally, Frette's prices reflect the quality: bed sets (two sheets and two pillowcases) range from $4,700 to $11,000 and duvet covers are between $3,600 and $8,800. And forget the industry's standard set of duvet cover plus two matching pillowcases. If you can afford Frette, you can afford to go the whole hedonistic hog with comforters, quilts, upper sheets, bottom sheets, shams (pillowcases with flanges), boudoir pillows, and the rather painful sounding indobolsters (extra large bolster pillows which span the entire width of the bed).

'I have six sets,' says Frette fan, fashion and interiors stylist Bernice Miles Lucchese. 'The difference in quality [to normal brands] is really noticeable. The sheets are finer and more luxurious. And beautiful to sleep in - you get in and just go, 'Ahh'. They are so precious, I won't even put mine in the dryer.'

Facchini admits to having more than 50 sets. 'I used Frette before I bought the company,' he says. 'For middle and upper class Italians, Frette is part of our culture, part of our life.'

Frette was founded in 1861 in Monza, near Milan, by Frenchman Edmond Frette and Italians Giuseppe Maggi and Carlo Antonietti. Up until two years ago the company was still owned by five of the descendents' families but in-fighting was endemic and none could agree on how Frette was to be run. Today, only one member of the Antonietti family still has any stake in the firm and a miniscule one at that.

In 1999, Frette was bought by Fin.part, an Italian financial group which also owns the high-end fashion labels Maska and Cerruti, and annual turnover has since increased from US$65 million (about HK$506 million) to this year's forecasted figure of US$120 million.

Part of this can be credited to Azario, who has injected sass-appeal into the catchily titled Frette-to-Wear collection, with 'loungewear' designed to bridge nightwear and evening attire. These slips of sensual nothingness are what women who spend their days choosing wallpaper and sipping camomile tea might wear - silk slips, mink-lined satin 'home shoes', pashmina shawls and pareos (sarongs).

To complete the soft-focus scene, Azario has introduced room fragrances, scented candles, soaps and the latest lifestyle fad - ironing water used to impart fragrance on linen while being steam-pressed.

A worldwide advertising campaign has been launched in high-end fashion and lifestyle magazines including Vogue, Elle and Wallpaper*, featuring ethereal images of models lounging around on Frette-bedecked beds.

Fin.part has taken an equally aggressive approach in expanding its stores and today there are 70 stand-alone boutiques and in-store concessions located in venues that read like the holiday haunts and shopping venues of the illustrious elite: Capri, Aspen, Geneva, Madison Avenue, London's Harrods . . .

And in Hong Kong, at Lane Crawford, its concessions have just been expanded and refurbished in line with its new international image. Up next is Frette-to-Wear for men this Christmas, and babies in the autumn including crib linen priced between $1,400 and $13,600 and miniature nightwear at around $1,000 to $1,500.

Which begs the question: is it worth the money? 'Let's not even talk about quality,' says Facchini firmly. 'That's a given. What we offer is a unique proposal of design and sensation. A sensual sensation. One of our customers, a country club-type lady from the Hollywood Hills said to me, 'You know why I adore Frette? Because they make this old and tired body feel young and sexy'. To her it's worth every penny.'